Author: Claire Olszewski, Museum Blog, Uncategorized

A Note from the Collection: The Surgical History of Diabetes

Published by Claire Olszewski.

Over the last two and a half months, the Museum has proudly hosted Justus Harris as Artist-in-Residence. At age 14, Harris was diagnosed with Type-1 Diabetes, a condition in which blood sugar is elevated due to the lack of insulin production in the pancreas. Harris’s work highlights the importance of being able to visualize how the disease is affecting the patient.

In recognition, we thought it would be a great idea to cover the history of type-1 diabetes! The first recorded symptoms of diabetes have been dated back to ancient Egyptian papyri, when it was noticed that ants were attracted to the excessive sugar expelled in urine. The term “diabetes” was coined in 2 AD by Greek Physician, Aretaeus of Cappadocia. Flash forward to 1889, Oskar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering experimented by removing the pancreas of dogs, resulting in severe diabetes and soon after, death. In 1910, Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer discovered that diabetes was due to a lack of insulin in the body. This led to Frederick Banting and his medical student Charles H. Best extracting insulin from eviscerated pancreases and injecting depancreatized dogs to regulate blood glucose, in 1921, discovering the treatment for type-1 diabetes.

It is still unknown the cause of type-1 diabetes. Scientists are led to believe that the disease could be hereditary. Evidence in favor of this theory (or possibly environmental factors if proximity was recognized) was detailed in Elliott P. Joslin’s book The Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus, published in 1937. The study compared identical and fraternal twins, each in which at least one possessed type-1 diabetes. In the case of identical twins, 84% had diabetes and most had a relative with the disease.

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The Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus by Elliott P. Joslin M.D. M.A., page 49

Due to the fact that the development of diabetes is not certain for the child of a diabetic, it is probable that the transmission of the disease relies on a recessive trait in conjunction with a secondary factor. Examples include but are not limited to; age, gender, obesity, activity level, and diet.

In The Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus, Elliott P. Joslin notes “diabetic surgery foreshadows the preventative surgery of the future… We hear much of preventive medicine; we should hear more of preventative surgery” and though we do not have a preventative surgery 80 years later, understanding of the disease has improved. In 1966, the first successful pancreatic transplant took place which facilitated insulin production in the body, reversing type-1 diabetes. This surgery is very high-risk and seldom done in non-emergency situations.


Joslin, Elliott P. The Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus. Lea & Febiger, 1937.

Karamanou, Marianna, et al. “Milestones in the History of Diabetes Mellitus.” World Journal of Diabetes, Baishideng Publishing Group Inc, 10 Jan. 2016,

“About.” Justus Harris,

Claire Olszewski is the Permanent Collection Intern at the International Museum of Surgical Science. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago in December of 2017 with her BA in Visual Arts Management and minor in Art History. She currently works at Linda Warren Projects as a Gallery Assistant.